Polemic: kw integral error?

a mystical möbius — curating facts, ideas, text, and media to create a contemplative space.


cue ball - Image by Kieu Nguyen from Pixabay


Recurring pit in stomach!

Even good ideas have unintended consequences.

Since Donald J. Trump became president I have had a recurring pit in my stomach.

Probably not for a reason you would imagine.

For some time the “pit” related to a sinking feeling I had about Trump having some kind of mixed-up relationship with Spiral Dynamics [SD]. I’ll check back in on this. First, some foundation work, my quick-take on a recent Integral Life podcast entitled: “Power, Privilege, and Fragility: Leveling Up Our Conversations About Race and Racism.”

Quick take

I say “quick-take” mainly because my remarks are mostly limited to something that was said in the first three minutes of a two hour and forty minute topic-discussion video. Two hours and forty minutes! OK, so that’s just how much I love you, my (three, sometimes four) readers!

So, at 2:04 of the intro, the host, Corey DeVos, says, speaking to co-host, Diane Musho Hamilton, regarding a previous conversation she had with philosopher, Ken Wilber [kw],

“When you had your talk with Ken about your book “Compassionate Conversations,”  I think Ken really nailed it when you were talking about the problem with the phrase ‘systemic racism.’ What Ken said was that the people who say it doesn’t exist, and the people who say it is absolutely everywhere, they are both right.”

Again, regarding “the problem with the phrase, ‘systemic racism‘,”… “the people who say it doesn’t exist, and the people who say it is absolutely everywhere, they are both right.”

So, once more, “it doesn’t exist” and “it is absolutely everywhere, are both right”!

What (the flying French toast are) you talkin’ ’bout Willis!?!

For those “In The Gnosis (Know)”

OK, so, do I know what the host means when he relates the kw “both right” story? Yes, I sure do. In a phrase, ‘integral quadrants‘ makes the “both right” claim possible. Sort of.


Quadrant model
holism mnemonic || integral quadrants

OK. Yet, I still say, “what the flying frick?” So, why?

Well, these “quadrants” are abstract rational constructions that describe a theoretical point of view. Now, one positive purpose this rational abstraction serves is to create a space for holistic framing (and a holism mnemonic). However, the problem here is that the unnuanced, nakedly-made “both right” claim also removes us from any practicality and life on the ground where real people try to relate to each other about “real” things. So, while technically correct from a Wilberian integral perspective, “the people who say it doesn’t exist, and the people who say it is absolutely everywhere, they are both right” is really messed up, and is now proving existentially dangerous in a post-truth culture. “Messed up,” how, why?

First, it’s plainly bullshit. With regard to systemic White supremacy, it is simply not accurate or correct to say that, “it doesn’t exist” is “right.”  Granted, it’s abstractly correct when the quadrant model shows that some people are unable to perceive ‘systems’ happening in the lower left quadrant. It’s also true that in real life, in actual practical terms, some people really don’t appear to perceive systems. Neither instance indicates that systems do not exist. Just because one can’t see the embedded image in magic-eye computer art, that doesn’t mean the image is not there to be seen. Again, positively, the model does help theoretically explain how people are able to stand within their exclusive focus on a particular quadrant’s view and talk right past others who are focused on the issue from within their (different) particular quadrant’s viewpoint. So, beyond it being bullshit, what’s the problem? 

Second, apparently when we pair up the “both right” notion with, for instance, a “no hierarchies” late-ER naïveté, it’s a recipe for creating dogma and the endless generation of false equivalencies and whataboutisms. 

Most importantly, while affirming mutually exclusive statements may be marginally correct in the abstract integral framework, only a small minority of folks are sufficiently in the know to be able to work with that helpfully [safely?]. To the vast majority of people, naked, unnuanced, mutually exclusive statements are absurd nonsense, and tend to put an abrupt end to good faith discourse.

So, why do I say “what the flying frick?”

Because now we’re finding out the hard way how mainstreaming “absurd nonsense” can also, beyond provocation to drive engagement, be tremendously dangerous and consequential in a post-truth saturated culture. It’s dangerous bullshit. When done intentionally (as Trump continually does), it becomes what Peter Pomerantsev has described as “political technology.”


thought experiment - Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash
Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash || CC0

Frightening thought experiment

Imagine Stephen Miller, or another Trump advisor, saying, “Hey Boss, listen to this really smart guy talk about ‘the problem with the phrase, ‘systemic racism. Boss, he says the people who say it doesn’t exist are right, he says in any conflict people on ‘both sides are right!'”

You know full well that Trump isn’t going to watch the whole nearly three hour video to learn the nuance behind the bizarre claim. His advisors are not going to bother him with details. No, they know that all Trump needs and wants is just the little [political technology] piece at two minutes saying systemic racism “doesn’t exist” and “both sides are right” in any conflict.

Then, the next thing we know the POTUS is declaring “fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville—as now, even though Trump couldn’t name it, he has a Wilberian “integral” brain trust for that claim.

How naïveté shows up in the Wilberian integral model

So, while the (2 hr. 40 min.) nuanced, rational, up-the-ladder abstractions and arguments that allow some grain of truth to the “both are right” claim do not support any kind of equivalency, for those who are White supremacists and White nationalists in Trump’s MAGA crowd, it’s enough. Enough that they can feel heard, affirmed, and empowered as fine (mostly not-consciously racist) people! Trump’s ignorant moral ambivalence opens the door wide to dark possibilities.

So, for instance, the nuance in John McWhorter’s fine-grain argument frequently cited by the conservative side in the racism debate (e.g., systemic racism can/does exist and yet we can question and criticize the overreach of some anti-racism efforts) is lost as only cherry-picked political technology is gleaned by Trump’s agents. In general, McWhorter’s voice fades into the noise made by elites. Other black voices, like Glenn Loury, also often appropriated by conservative whites, are even less subtle in their argumentation that White supremacist racism claims are being hysterically presented. All these are available as a brain trust for harvest by Trump’s cynical machine as political technology to be even further oversimplified for distribution by the election campaign.

If anyone should have known!

So, I feel as though ‘writing‘ itself is an act of oversimplification, it’s just a matter of degree. The limited space/time available to a blogger demands a rather robust practice of oversimplification. The oversimplification I am about to indulge regarding Gnosticism is of a particular form. This form reflects a general, overall summary of a topic that may not be reflected directly in the literature, per se, but does capture a low-res (broad stroke) picture of a consensus reading. 

Re-pitted stomach

At 57:57 (of 2:40:00) we get another mutually exclusive pairing, again from the host, “We can be anti-racist and anti—anti-racist at the same time.” [McWhorter’s 15 minute argument reduced to a mutually-exclusive seeming sound bite.]

Again, do I know what that means and how that could possibly be correct?

Yes, I sure do know how that rational abstraction works in the realm of integral theory.

Narrow audience

That’s really the problem right there. Because I also have a rough idea of how many people there are who have no idea at all what the heck is going on there. So, in the first two minutes we get what appear for all the world to be two mutually exclusive truths (one of which isn’t even true), before an hour is up we get another mutually exclusive statement. In between, no clear and direct unpacking of how that works. 

Wilber’s AQAL model is a heuristic, so calculus-like claims from Wilberians are a grand overreach anyway—or merely expressions of a dogmatic understanding. The argument that perspectives of two different quadrants are simply talking past each other may well have theoretical validity and (darkly) justify the “both are right” claim, but it has very little veracity on the ground in real life. Most people see such claims as absurd. Let’s unpack the problem a bit more. 

Source of non-congruence with SD 

A key tenet of Wilberian integral is that every perspective has some validity. For Wilberians, this is tantamount to internalized code. This can present as an absolutist relationship with both/and. I’d suggest “both/and” is a healthy (if sometimes a bit naïve) expression of the Green [FS] priority code, e.g., including all stories. I say “a bit naïve” because while the intuition is good, any actual incarnation of it requires self-awareness, adjustment, and fine tuning. For instance, a both/and overreach: “We can be anti-racist and anti—anti-racist at the same time.” The pretzel-logic required to work that out serves as a distraction from the actual problems of racism that most Black people struggle with at some point nearly every day. 

Common pattern

“Gnosticism” is a religious form that is seen in many expressions from East to West. In its many expressions, Gnosticism of most every kind shares the common feature of being a narrative regarding human existence as a school of graduated-levels, e.g., spiritual developmental system. Another common point, Gnostic forms are generally self-aware that they are esoteric. This is wisdom to the philosophy’s credit. —I note, it is a heresy in Christian tradition because it invariably leads to disembodiment.

I have no idea what kw was thinking, the guy is a frigging genius as near as I can tell, at least in pattern recognition and integrating narratives. I’m reasonably confident that kw‘s integral system works out like Swiss clock-work, in kw‘s mind. I imagine the problems arise in the reliable transfer of kw‘s clear vision to the Wilberian “narrative” and ultimately to individual Wilberries.   

In any event, looking at it from a Wilberian integral standpoint, kw‘s system is Gnostic, so I reckon what with SD being a human development map, surely an integral and SD mash-up must have made some kind of obvious sense. The willingness of kw to do the mash-up with integral and SD was not a friendly amendment to SD. They don’t mix well, imhv. 

Wilberian integral is esoteric

I feel if anyone ought to have known the wisdom of nearly all Gnostic forms, e.g., the self-awareness to realize that much of Gnostic knowledge (including integral) is esoteric material, even dangerously so, that it would be kw. As I said, in kw‘s mind, integral works like a Swiss watch. The way integral‘s “everyone is right” abstraction plays out in Wilberian interaction with society is quite troublesome. Integral, as Gnosticism in general, is esoteric and we would do well if it were handled as such.

Graves/SD is exoteric [designed to be]

To its credit, Graves SD does not pretend to apply to Spirit. SD knows it has absolutely nothing to say to Spirit. This is a wise position to keep. This frees SD from the Wilberian integral error, e.g., a need to rely on esoteric grounding in exoteric contexts. I sometimes wonder if Wilberians perhaps use bald integral “both sides are right” claims as attention-getting provocation in our algorithmic zeitgeist.

This esoteric problem with integral makes me unhappy in the era of Trump, and so I write this piece that will no-doubt make other people unhappy, too.  

The Trump-based “recurring pit in my stomach” is my body’s reaction to things like “fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville, and is a function of the administration’s very ham-handed display of it’s jaundiced integral aspirations, and not a result of any SD complicity. I feel SD understands the truth of “everyone is right” has a very limited and specific place in the dynamics—e.g., as a helpful aide in the accounting for situational ethics in first tier. 

Related post: “Jaundiced?”

Next week: Why Wilberian integral was not a friendly amendment to SD. Title: “Well, who asked you?”

[this post approx. 2,100 words (9 min. read)]

[Note: I’ve refreshed this post with inclusion of the initial heading and the new non-stadial graphics. Beyond the new graphics (below), no rectification of “stages” done on this piece, the post appears as it did when first published in July 2020 (I had no editor then).]

Your thoughts?

I never know what I’ve said till I hear the response. What did you hear me say?



cue ball - Image by Kieu Nguyen from Pixabay

14 thoughts on “Polemic: kw integral error?

  1. I get that same pit in my stomach.

    When I tangle with the various forms taken by the “both right” perspective I often revisit JEFF MEYERHOFF’s description of Wilber’s Vision-Logic in his book “Bald Ambition.”


    “Egoic-rational consciousness arises with the arrival of modernity and allows humans to consider other peoples’ perspectives. Prior to this, the pre-modern, mythical consciousness required a belief in its absolute truth and the denial of alternative perspectives. This advance in consciousness is essential for the moral advance of tolerance because if we can consider the perspectives of others we can understand them better. Rationality has its limits though; the perceiver can acknowledge differing perspectives, but cannot integrate them without reducing them to his or her own “truth.” The rational person understands what the other believes, but simultaneously excludes it as wrong. The choice is between being a dogmatic defender of our chosen view or a wishy-washy relativist who says any view is as good as any other.”

    “Wilber claims that a solution to this problem is occurring through a shift in consciousness. We are moving from the dominance of egoic-rationality to a new consciousness and mode of being called vision-logic or the integral-aperspectival. This new consciousness allows us to step back and mindfully view the contents of consciousness. By gaining this ability to view rationality as a whole we can now transcend it. This transcendence is no mere detachment, but a greater embrace in which the previously disassociated spheres of matter, life, mind and spirit can be integrated. Humans can become qualitatively different beings. Instead of experiencing ourselves as an awkward mixture of a mechanical living machine and a seemingly immaterial consciousness, we can experience ourselves as an integrated whole of sensations, emotions, thoughts and spirit, all held within a larger witnessing awareness. Wilber sometimes refers to this new mode of being as centauric, after the mythic beast that combined the human and the animal.”

    A bit further in Meyeroff’s argument we find this:

    “Wilber states that “so much of the verbal-mental-egoic dimension…. becomes increasingly objective, increasingly transparent, to centauric consciousness” and notes that “this ‘transparency,’ according to Gebser, is a primary characteristic of the integral-aperspectival mind.” Vision-logic he says has “the capacity to go within and look at rationality [and] results in a going beyond rationality.”

    The capacity to go inward to examine rationality and in so doing going beyond rationality is no easy task. What is even more difficult is to bring this experience back into a rational analytic explanation.

    My take on Gnosticism is not entirely in line with the position generally arrived at by Christian traditions. I like the definition of gnosis as Divine Intuition. You write “I note, it is a heresy in Christian tradition because it invariably leads to disembodiment.” My view is that if one takes gnosis within the context of a panentheism that sees God in everything, everything in God, and God also beyond everything, then the danger of disembodiment is overcome. God is immanent and transcendent, another difficult “both right” scenario. My concern is that the heresy of Gnosticism has contaminated the notion of “gnosis as Divine Intuition.” Bernard McGinn, in his multivolume “The Presence of God” series, quotes extensively from Chrisitan mystics. In the 1st volume “The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century,” McGinn has a section on “The Gnostic Threat” which is of course about the heresy. The thing that was more relevant for me was how the early Christian mystics used the word gnosis. It seems to me, that they used gnosis as Divine Intuition and as a source for their mysticism. Near the end of the section on “The Gnostic Threat,” McGinn writes, “Gnostic mysticism, like most Jewish mysticism, was fundamentally esoteric in nature. Christian mysticism, at least the mysticism that is usually judged orthodox, is not.” He doesn’t at that point in the text explain that conclusion and it has been too long since I read the book to remember how he supports that position.


    1. David,

      Thanks for writing!

      My Christian mysticism professor, (the late) Jane McAvoy, took her PhD under McGinn. I have his Foundations book in my hand at this moment.

      As I said in the piece, I did oversimplify the Gnosticism generalizations, but I feel that what I’ve written is of sufficient resolution to fairly analyze the Wilberian integral problem with esotericism (at the ‘in-2,000-words’ level).

      I appreciate your feedback, David! 


  2. Many great points here imo.

    I want to add:

    First, Re how theory often doesn’t match conditions on the ground. This reminds me of the thought experiment about shooting an arrow at an object and the object never being hit because the arrow always has to go half-way through the remaining distance. Even a cursory viewing of Game of Thrones shows us the problem with this proposition.

    Second, The truth claim that something (e.g., systemic racism) doesn’t exist cannot be proven because you cannot prove something doesn’t exist. So it is not an equal assertion to its opposite (that systemic racism does exist,) which can be proven with even one example.


  3. I’ve read and followed Wilber since the 80’s and SD for many years as well. I have gained insight about my self and human potentiality from both. I’m tired of the fighting among groups and within groups.  If one or the other views makes you a better human or helps you understand others better then it is helpful. If not another place of understanding awaits. I haven’t gained insight in how to expand my understanding of others by reading about the conflicts in these groups. Makes my head and heart ❤️ hurt. I hope when all these retrograde planets 🪐 go direct we will have reviewed all the hidden areas of our own unrest and look forward to creating new visions of how to get along with each other. An integral world 🌎 curious about differences and delight in finding comforting ways to build community and acceptance with all the complexity of human awareness.  Susan Oliver Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPhone


    1. Susan,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts/feelings!

      Never troubled me for years and I was fine to leave all of it laid on the table. That is, until recently when I saw Wilberian integralists begin confusing/obfuscating the White supremacist racism issue in several places. Subsequently, I watched the Integral Life video-cast on the race issue. Then I felt as though I needed to take it up.

      The piece I’m writing for this coming weekend will serve as my way of both finishing outlining the questions I have for Graves SD regarding SD and Wilberian integral, and laying it all back on the table. What happens with any of it, if anything, after that will be out of my control. I do my part as faithfully as I’m able, then I give it to Providence. And I’m fine with that, actually grateful for that.

      Thanks for reading my weekly blog posts, I appreciate you!

      Best regards,


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